Dr. Henny Burckhardt from Vienna
By Charlotte Guthmann Opfermann
Published Here with the permission of the author.
Many of the children in Theresienstadt Ghetto-KZ were orphans, their parents and/or siblings having been deported and killed earlier. The ones who did have parents living in the camp were virtual orphans, since the parents were unable to provide emotional or any other kind of parenting support under the existing grim conditions.
Some time in 1942, the internal elder administrators, the Aeltestenrat , realized that they had to find some manner of caring for the children, however briefly most of them would only be in the camp, given the steady ebb and flow of the children and adult population1
With this in mind, the housing administrators at the Magdeburger Kaserne assigned certain of the available barracks and designated them for occupation by children only, such as L517, L414, L410, even L218 for teenage young men. The age for L414 and L410 was, approximnately, between six and sixteen, although there were some exceptions made, given the internal system of P&B (Protecktion und Beziehungen) .
Known members and leaders of the Communist party and known Zionists were selected from among the camp population and assigned to work at these 'youth barracks' as room elders and barracks elders. They often knew one another from their pre-arrest/pre-deportation work in Prague, Vienna, Pilsen, Maehrisch Ostrau or wherever they had come from. All these young men and women had a strong sense of mission. They were well organized and formed the first line of defense (against depression and the ever present temptation to steal a blanket, food or articles of clothing from other prisoners and engage in other illegal/destructive acts) for the children. Following the established pattern of euphemistic 'Nazi-speak', the youth barracks were referred to as 'home' (Heim ) and a spirit of Kibbuz and Hachscharrah mentality reigned.
In contrast to other barracks elders and room elders, the youth barracks and room elders did not see themselves as extensions of our jailers. Even my Father, who had always been more concerned about his clients and the members of the congregation, and who had always gone to bat for them --at considerable risk to himself-- with any and all Nazi organizations, was overcome with a general sense of helplessness once he arrived in the camp. He had been appointed barrack attic elder at the Hanover Kaserne from the first day on. Oftentimes, when his 'tenants' complained about the poor condition of the space assigned to them, he would try to comfort them "You know, you'll be here for a short period only. I shall try to find a different spot for you and want to encourage you to look around, also. Let me know if you find an empty cot in one of the rooms downstairs or a spot on the attic that we can stake out for you."
Looking back to these exchanges from our present perspective, this seems almost heartless. We knew that the next outgoing transport might include us and may well be the end. Our 'present' existence in this camp and at that location was so tenuous that finding such 'comfort' in the next destination was not as illogical or as heartless as it appears now, in retrospect.
In these newly designated youth barracks, the room elders were called Betreuer , caregivers. Considering the political propaganda use of language, as practiced with such cunning by the Nazis, we had learned our lesson well. Without exception, the caregiver-Betreuer I got to know were generous, self-less, had an altruistic purpose for their life and their work. Helping was writ large, even if their charges were entrusted to their care for a brief stint only.
The best living-dying example of these was Dr. Henny Burckhardt, biology professor from Vienna: she was deported from Theresienstadt with the Fall 1944 liquidation-deportation transports to Auschwitz. En route, she did what she could to help the children in the wagon with her, as related to me by Rena Adler, a fellow deportee whom I saw again a few months later when the death march victims arrived in Theresienstadt:
Henny got out of the train, as ordered, holding one of the little boys from L414's large roster of tubercular children in her arms, a chap about five years old. The guard at the ramp asked "Is this your child?" Henny replied "No." To no one's surprise, the next question was "Do you want to stay with him?" Henny hesitated only for the briefest of moments, while the true meaning of this question became obvious. Then she threw her head back, hugged the sick boy just a bit more firmly and replied "Yes, I will." Then she joined the line-up of the old, the infirm, the mothers of little children headed for the gas chambers."
About the author
I was born in Wiesbaden, Germany. My father was a prominent Jewish attorney in this town of then 260,000 (Jewish pop. in 1933: 3500-plus). Our family was ultimately sent to Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Theresienstadt, Lodz and others. I survived this imprisonment and escaped to the United States in 1946, as soon as I could obtain a visa, and traveled from Bremerhaven to New York.
A few years later, I returned briefly to Germany to marry a half-Jewish childhood friend. Heinz Rudolf Alphons Oskar Opfermann who was the oldest son of a prominent German family (famous architects and -also- founders of Henkell Sekt, champagne firm 1803). His Jewish mother and his 'ethnic German-Aryan'father had committed suicide in the Gestapo jail in February 1945.
I speak French, German and English with equal native fluency. I taught at the American College in Paris (affiliated with the American Church on Quai d'Orsay) English and German and I also pursued my own studies -earlier- while living in Chicago: Northwestern University, University of Chicago, LaSalle University. I have assisted with Holocaust education for adults and students since 1987, in this country and during annual trips in Germany, the Czech Republic and in Poland, have written a play 'Lambs at Play...for Time', a book 'Stationen', and many articles and lectures. Participated with the publication of other books ('Education under the Swastika' which I am busy translating into English). I have done Holocaust education related radio and TV shows in Germany and the Czech Republic, many documentary videos and audio tapes (some of which are distributed by the official German government's Amt für Politische Bildung i.e. dept. for political education) and presented papers at several scholarly conferences in this country and abroad.
I taught World History, French, German, Western Civ, World War II, Holocaust and related subjects in AOL's Academic Assistance Center tutoring rooms and supplied Holocaust related information for their encyclopediac data base. Teach English as Second Language (Beginners and Intermediate and Pre-GED at the College of the Mainland, Dept. of Continuing Education, Texas City-Houston TX and an internet Holocaust education course (8 hrs. grad.credits) at Nicolas Copernicus University, Torun, Poland, "Hitler, Heydrich, Himmler, Eichmann and Co. on the Holodeck".
I am preparing a seminar for Stockholm University for this Fall and also
several lectures for the Swedish government's Levande Historia-Living History
Project, Stockholm and Upsala next January 2000.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.